August 09, 2007

NIGERIA: Options for ceasefire in Niger Delta


Asari-Dokubo As each day sets in, the Niger Delta militants keep increasing their demands, thus prolonging what could otherwise have almost been concluded by now, writes our South South Bureau Chief, John Ogbedu.

IN December last year, towards Christmas Day, when the nation, particularly the Christian-dominated Niger Delta region, was reeling in the euphoria of the anticipated yuletide, militants in the foremost Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) unleashed terror at an Agip Brass oil field in Bayelsa State.

In the process, four expatriate staffs of the company, Arena Franco, Dieghi Roberto, Russo Cosma Damiano (all Italians) and Saliba Amad, a Lebanese, were kidnapped by MEND freedom fighters. A spokesman of MEND had explained then that the kidnapping of these Agip workers had nothing to do with any demand for ransom. But, somewhere along the line, some chicken-hearted government officials (in collaboration with an oil firm?) reportedly presented N200 million to MEND to negotiate the release of the four hostages. Though MEND said it was not cut out for ransom-taking, it, however, decided to confiscate the ransom brought unsolicited to assuage their vexed minds.

After denouncing the mega-million ransom, the militants then went down brass tacks threatening, through their unnamed spokesman, that “there will be no negotiations (over the release of the four hostages) until our conditions are met”. What were the conditions of the group? One, the release from prison detention the ex-Bayelsa State governor and self-styled Governor-General of the Ijaw Nation, Chief Diepreye Alamiyeseigha, who was (then) standing trial for corruption charges. Two, the release from prison detention the leader of another militant group, the Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force (NDPVF), Alhaji Mujahid Asari-Dokubo. As an aside, one has been released on bail while the other is now an ex-convict.

Three, the group said it wants “a larger share in the nation’s oil revenue for local people in the Niger Delta region” and four, they want compensation for communities adversely affected by oil spills in the environmentally-degraded restive region. To give vent to its action and emphasize the seriousness of its demand, the body detonated two car bombs in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, in December 2006 and said; “We will step up both the intensity and the ruthlessness of our campaign against oil companies in the region. Agip Oil Company is advised to disregard all who claim to be able to facilitate the release of these hostages. It will not happen. Rather than release them, the hostages will be shot. This is a promise from MEND”.

Niger Delta Militants With time, these demands have been re-echoed over and over, with the intention of knocking it into the heads of Nigerian leaders that militant groups in the Niger Delta region mean serious business in their fight for the emancipation of the region from the devastating throes of hunger, poverty and general underdevelopment. Not quite long ago, the militants made another demand namely, self-determination for the Niger Delta people. Expectedly, more demands are still in the pipeline. The latest in the arsenal of the militants, with particular reference to their umbrella body, the Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC), whose image maker, Cynthia Whyte, in a recent online statement, said the region will not see peace in the foreseeable future if some juicy appointments in the oil and gas sector are not reserved exclusively for indigenes of the oil-rich region.

According to Whyte, “Appointment into strategic positions of leadership in the oil and gas sector will create a network of relationships, opportunities and privileges that can be accessed by the people of the Niger Delta to enable them overcome poverty, deprivation and neglect”. He said these opportunities would in turn create and provide incentives for disadvantaged and high-risk youths and reduce their motivation to indulge in violent agitation and other vices. Though the militants honestly admitted that such appointments are not the ultimate end in themselves but a means to an end, they never failed to say again that, “we believe that the appointment of capable people from these communities will provide a much needed tonic in soothing the frayed nerves in the Niger Delta”.

Come to think of it, there is no community in the world that would not wish that the goodies of good life reside permanently in its domain, with its inhabitants also benefiting from the good things of life. Besides, it is the African mentality that only a blood relation can salvage one from the pangs of poverty through deserved and undeserved patronage. That is the misplaced, typical Nigerian mentality, which the militants have decided to bring to the fore now. From highly patriotic, emotional demands that really touched the hearts of many non-Niger Deltans, the demands of the militants are seemingly becoming less and less patriotic. Indeed, some of them smack of glorification of nepotism and man-know-man style of governance, which does not truly recognise merit.

This latest demand sounds like the voice of Jacob (the militants) and the hairy body of Esau (their Nigerian sponsors), who seemed bent on reaping from the unholy, criminal activities of some militants, who have given militancy their all and all in order to bend the hands of the Nigerian government backward and, in the process, satisfy their propensity for greed and unfettered over-ambition. In as much as the principle of federal character, as entrenched in the Nigerian Constitution is welcomed in some quarters, merit should never be sacrificed, no matter the odds at stake, on the altar of soothing the nerves of the militant groups or their yet-to-be-exposed financial backers. After all, there are many indigenes of the Niger Delta region that hold their heads high anywhere in the world, including the oil and gas oil sector.

Niger Deltans do not, therefore, need to beg the Nigerian nation to appoint only its own to head top managerial positions in the vital oil and gas sector of the nation’s economy. This is because when one talks about merit, the Niger Deltan is as qualified as any other Nigerian or even a foreigner to manage Nigeria’s oil and gas industry or the mining sector. To beg for such positions, using the instrument of coercion by militants, whose orders are now taken seriously, should be out of the question. Any keen observer of the politics in the Niger Delta would agree that even within the oil region, there are still petty jealousies, bickering and discrimination whenever someone in the Ijaw-speaking or non-Ijaw speaking communities is appointed into these so-called juicy positions in government, including the oil and gas sector. Rightly or wrongly, some Ijaw-speaking Niger Deltans sometimes feel that the region should begin and end with them, notwithstanding what other non-Ijaw speaking states think.

Let it not surprise anyone that the current Group Managing Director (GMD) of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Engineer Funso Kufolokun is a Niger Delta man, who hails from oil-producing Ilaje Community in Ondo. But, then, is he, like others before him, John Thomas (from Cross River State) and Gaius Obaseki (from Edo State), regarded as true Niger Deltans like their Rivers State colleague, Chamberlain Oyibo? What significant difference did these sons of the soil, as chief executives of NNPC, made in the landscape of the region? As this piece is being read now, the battle for the GMD of NNPC among the Niger Delta states has begun in earnest.

But then, looking at it from another objective angle, the question is: Was the Niger Delta region really an eldorado when its indigenes were in top management positions in the oil and gas sector in the past? Difficult as this question may be to answer, the truth has to be told, anyway. Environmental degradation and burgeoning poverty still persisted, even when indigenes of the Niger Delta were at the helm of affairs in the oil industry. These socio-economic malaises were eminently visible then. But the militants and others in the region took the situation as the continuation of government’s neglect of the nation’s life wire, the Niger Delta region.

So, what is the hue and cry now over the compulsory indigenisation of juicy appointments in the oil and gas sector in the country in favour of the Niger Deltans? Though such indigenisation is capable of giving the downtrodden people in the region a great sense of belonging, the militant groups, under the JRC admitted however, that; “it may not be a one-stop shop for the complete resolution of the complex Niger Delta question… Though it would go a long way to proving the honesty, sincerity and willingness of the government of the Nigerian state in dealing with the problems of the people of the Niger Delta”.

From 1999 till date, when the region has been under the firm control of its indigenes, operating as politicians in various Government Houses in the six states of the region, what has it to show for this sort of indigenisation of political and administrative offices in the area? All past and present civilian governors in the region are Niger Deltans to the core. But have the multifarious problems of the oil-rich region disappeared under their leadership? Making appointments mainly on the basis of where one comes from is not really the messianic answer we have been waiting for. Frankly, it is also capable of undoing the much desired peace and unity that for 30 years, Nigerians fought for in an internecine Civil War (1967-1970).

More than anything else, Nigeria now needs peace and unity, not the promotion of favouritism or nepotism, which substantially accounted for putting square pegs in round holes in the country. Such lapses have often resulted in the abysmal performance of our leaders in office, whether imposed or elected. Some have corruptly enriched themselves, their relations and close friends, including their tempestuous concubines or mistresses.

Since the place of origin of a person is yet to become an acceptable scientific barometer for measuring one’s job efficiency, then, it should not (hoping the militants will see reasons with altruistic Niger Deltans and their brothers from other parts of the country) necessarily be used as a yardstick for appointments, high or low, in any sector of the nation’s economy. Without raising the sentiment of place of origin stuff, the Niger Delta is populated by capable hands that can occupy whatever positions that the militants desire in the country without hiding under the cloak of nepotism to reach such enviable positions.
Undoubtedly, it is not only your brother, who can get you out of the woods whenever you are socially or financially distressed. Sometimes, some relations are worse than your friends, who are not related to you biologically.

In as much as one is not entirely dismissing the position of the militants, obviously because of their past experiences where people, who have no idea of how a typical Niger Delta creek looks like, are made to sit in sensitive positions to decide the infrastructural fate of such creeks, their call ought to be reviewed. The desperation of the hard-fighting militants, who felt wronged by the Nigerian state and have the strong urge to right the perceived injustices that the Niger Delta has been subjected to by successive governments in the country, is understandable. Having accepted to give the Yar’Adua government an opportunity to correct the developmental lapses in the region and to enter into negotiation with the present administration, hard and unshakeable positions should, as much as possible, be avoided by parties playing major roles in resolving the crises in the Niger Delta region.

If the tough-talking, war-weary, but ruthless militants in the Darfur region in Sudan could temporarily sheath their swords and sit at a roundtable with Sudanese government officials to negotiate peace and the way forward for the war-torn nation then, nothing stops the Nigerian militants and government from downing their destructive missiles for the less combative jaw-jaw tussle at the roundtable.

Lest one forgets, at the rate militant groups in the Niger Delta are churning out their demands these days, it should not surprise anybody if they wake up one day to make the immediate resignation of Yar’Adua as the president of Nigeria and the immediate swearing-in of his deputy, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, as the new Head of State as one of their fresh demands!


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